Discovery and Beyond
Wall Street Journal Op-Ed (8/1/2005)
By Charles Beichman
The fact that the Space Shuttle Discovery's External Tank continues to
shed large pieces of insulating foam shows that the conditions that led
to the Columbia tragedy have not been completely eliminated.
Fortunately, there is no indication of any threat to Discovery itself,
but the problem serves to highlight the risks inherent to human
spaceflight. As NASA engineers work to understand the implications of
this recurring problem, NASA and the nation must debate how to balance
the nation's space program in the longer-term context of its two main
goals: science and exploration. 
Many scientists are worried that they will be forced to pay the price of
delayed or cancelled missions for a renewed commitment to human
exploration and the ever more pressing need for a new, human-rated space
vehicle to replace the Shuttle. However, we must recognize that the
dichotomy between science and exploration is a false one: the best
science is exploration and true exploration builds on the best science.
In 1767, the British government sent Captain Cook and scientist Joseph
Banks to Tahiti for reasons of astronomical research, exploration, and
empire. In 1972, the United States achieved a similar milestone for
equally mixed reasons when we landed a practicing geologist, Harrison
Schmitt, on the moon to explore its surface. A successful space program
will support both science and exploration.
In the past decade, robotic spacecraft and telescopes have been our
primary vehicles of exploration. American and European scientists and
engineers, working together or in friendly competition, have forged
modern technology into extensions of our human senses to let us
investigate the planets and moons in our own and other planetary
systems. With our cameras on landers and rovers we see rocks and river
basins on Mars and Saturn's moon Titan; with the Spitzer telescope we
sense the heat of another Jupiter orbiting its parent star; with the
microphone on the Huygens lander we hear the sounds of the alien world
Titan; with our remote handling tools, spectrometers, and chromatographs
we bring the modern analogues of touch, taste and smell to chemical
analyses of planetary soils and even of planets orbiting other stars. 
Even if the applications of this research are not immediate, the
questions are profound and long-standing, touching on the birth, life,
and death of the Universe, as well as on the creation, evolution and
ultimate fate of life. Is life an imperative of the laws of physics and
chemistry? Is the Universe habitable by chance or design? Does the
Universe teem with life or are we alone? These are debates of science,
of philosophy, and of belief stretching back more than 2,400 years as
suggested by a quote from the Greek philosopher Epicurus (ca 300 BC):
"There are infinite worlds both like and unlike this world of ours. . .
. We must believe that in all worlds there are living creatures and
plants and other things we see in this world." We can now reframe this
debate with new facts using 21st Century technology. The importance of
these questions and the excitement of discovery creates and nourishes
curious minds. Watching the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo launches
inspired the career choices of many of today's scientists and engineers.
The 12 billion hits on the Mars Rover Web sites suggest that today's
space science results are doing the same for the next generation. 
While robotic space science has produced glorious results (and a few
inglorious debacles) over the past decade, human spaceflight has
languished without clear goals. If you think of the Space Shuttle as
tugboat in the harbor of low-earth orbit, then the International Space
Station is a man-made island built in the middle of the harbor for want
of a better destination for the tugboat. While both the Shuttle and the
Space Station are wonderful engineering accomplishments, no one can
really explain why were they built other than to keep the human
spaceflight program alive while waiting for something better to happen.
Unfortunately, instead, while we were waiting, something worse happened:
14 astronauts died in two horrible shuttle accidents. While the skill
and courage of our astronauts is beyond measure, the tasks we have given
them are not worthy of the risks they bear with each launch and each
It is valid to question whether humans should go into in space at all.
Instead of indulging our romantic notions of Star Wars, why not just
send R2-D2 and C3PO? Then, if a mission fails, a few review boards will
investigate the technical reasons for the failure, but no lives would be
lost and no bereft families would need a president's consolation. But
the urge to explore has defined humanity for tens of thousands of years
as we migrated from continent to continent, outward from Africa to
Europe, Polynesia and the Americas. In "Guns, Germs and Steel," Jared
Diamond describes an atavistic urge to go over the next mountain range
or beyond the ocean's horizon, to move from where we are to where we
might be. The modern expression of these urges leads to our search for
water and life on Mars, to the search for habitable planets orbiting
other stars. 
We will first expand our horizons robotically because it is cheapest and
safest, but when it becomes possible, we will eventually expand
humanity's physical presence to the only other planet capable of
supporting life as we know it, Mars. This exploration will not be cheap.
It certainly will not be risk-free and it will not happen soon. But once
we have used our robotic scouts to identify interesting places to visit,
e.g. geothermal hot spots where liquid water might be found or recently
discovered sites of methane gas, we will ultimately send human scouts to
continue a migration that started 100,000 years ago.
How can NASA balance science and exploration? For exploration, we should
acknowledge that humans have little more to learn in low earth orbit.
NASA should satisfy our international commitments by bringing the
International Space Station to a minimum level of completion as soon as
possible and then move onto more important business. Let Virgin Galactic
offer private harbor tours to rich tourists. We must leave the harbor
and venture again into the "blue water" of deep space. Following
President Bush's post-Columbia vision for space exploration and under
Dr. Griffin's leadership, NASA has started down this path, but long term
congressional support will be critical to this expensive undertaking and
the continuing problems with a fragile, ageing Space Shuttle fleet give
great urgency to the identification of a new approach. 
For space science, the science community, working with NASA and through
the National Academy, has laid out programs that will search for
habitable environments on Mars and Jupiter's moon Europa, look for
potentially life-bearing planets orbiting nearby stars, identify the
first galaxies forming after the Big Bang, and study the birthplaces of
the first black holes. In today's difficult budget environment not all
new science projects will be affordable and not all existing projects
can be funded indefinitely into the future. Not if we are to gain the
most important new capabilities. Continual prioritization of scientific
goals, careful selection and management of projects of appropriate size
to ensure a continuous flow of new ideas, and competition between
talented teams of scientists and engineers will ensure the continuation
of the legacy of the Hubble Space Telescope and the Mars Rovers. 
If, in the difficult debates over what to do next and what to give up,
we are guided by a critical self-examination to ensure that we are
addressing the most pressing scientific questions and daring the most
audacious goals in human exploration, then we will convince our fellow
citizens that our efforts are worthy of their continued support. 
Congratulations to Discovery and godspeed you home.
Mr. Beichman is an astronomer and the executive director of the
Michelson Science Center at the California Institute of Technology.